This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
After a beautiful, sunny day at the end of July last year, Luuk and three of his friends take a stroll through Berlin. They're visiting the city to experience everything it has to offer and, above all, to party. It's their second-to-last night, and they decide to go out to the legendary techno club Tresor.
They're in the mood to do some drugs, but there's a problem: they haven't brought any with them on the trip, they don't know any dealers in Berlin, and they don't want to be scammed by a shady street dealer. They've heard from friends that some clubs in Berlin have dealers walking around to make sure only quality drugs are being sold inside the club—but they're not sure if that's just a rumor or not.
After a couple of hours at Tresor drinking alcohol, they run into a guy who says he can help them. They buy some ecstasy and speed from him. Soon after taking the pills they all start feeling that something's off. It's clear that the ecstasy isn't exactly as advertised. They decide to take it easy for the rest of the evening and they're fine—nothing serious happens that night.
But the next morning, Luuk is still feeling weird. He feels detached, unfocussed, like he's living in another world. On top of that, his vision is blurred—he keeps seeing the kind of static you see on TV when the reception is bad. It doesn't clear up; on the contrary: back home with his parents the static becomes so intense that the furniture seems to be moving. "I had no idea what was happening to me," Luuk explains to me. "I thought I was having a psychosis and that something in my head just wasn't right." He decides to do some research and quickly realizes he's suffering from Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD).
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, people with HPPD are reliving one or more perceptual symptoms they've undergone while on drugs. One of the most common symptoms is visual snow, but HPPD patients can also suffer from seeing floaters (shadow-like moving shapes in your field of vision), palinopsia (recurrence of visual images), and spotting halos around objects.
There are different theories about what exactly causes HPPD, but all patients have one thing in common: they've used drugs. Dr. Gerard Alderliefste is an expert in the field of addiction, and works for a Dutch information line for people suffering from chronic medical problems after recreational drug use. He claims the most probable cause is a fluctuation in the neurotransmission—the communication between the nerves: "That can end the filtering of signals. But it's unclear what role drugs play in this, exactly. The majority of HPPD patients have used drugs at least 50 times in their lives—whether it's ecstasy, speed, LSD, or cannabis. But there are cases where people have started suffering from HPPD after the third time they ever did ecstasy."
Not much research has been conducted on HPPD. Alderliefste thinks that's due to the fact that not many people know about the affliction. "Many doctors don't recognize HPPD, which leads to a misdiagnosis of their patients," he explains. "And the number of people suffering from it is relatively small to begin with." From 2008 to 2014, 146 people were diagnosed with HPPD. "That makes it harder to raise funds for research," he continues.
When Luuk further researches his affliction online, his worries grow: "I only read about people for whom it gradually became worse: sometimes it took years, or it never went away." He tells himself he'll have to learn how to live with this condition for the rest of his life. When he gets in touch with Brijder—an organization specializing in addiction treatment—their doctor offers Luuk an intake interview to discuss his options for prescription medication. "I declined. I really wanted to try and recover without any medication first." The doctor then proposes a plan with some general measures he can take to get better: no alcohol, no smoking, a healthy diet, and a lot of exercise.
In October, Luuk's situation starts taking a turn for the worse. "I tried to live according to that plan, but at times I didn't feel it was working and I couldn't give a shit about it any more. Sometimes I wouldn't drink any alcohol for three weeks and then go completely crazy on the weekend." Thinking his situation is hopeless, he starts suffering from depression.
In his meetings with the specialist from Brijder, Luuk discusses feeling like he has lost himself—the world feels unreal to him. Apart from HPPD, he is diagnosed with having depersonalization disorder (DPD). DPD is a defense mechanism protecting someone from emotions that could be dangerous or threatening. Alderliefste explains: "Trauma can trigger this reaction—and a bad trip in itself could cause trauma." DPD makes a patient less anxious, but also emotionally flat. When you don't feel connected to the people around you, emotional bonds with friends and family start to dissolve. "That fact in itself frightens patients too, which again triggers the mechanism. It's a vicious circle. Patients often become depressed."
Luuk starts looking for a psychologist to talk to, but the almost 20 practices he contacts all turn him down: once they find out his situation is related to drugs, they decline to treat him. "It felt like nobody wanted to help me, so I stopped looking. That was a terrible mistake, but I was depressed and didn't want to put in any more effort." Alderliefste thinks it's peculiar that Luuk was turned down so many times. "Psychologists should never decline to treat people—they should just request the necessary information at addiction treatment centers so they're able to treat those patients anyway. They can help patients to relax, to distract themselves, and to tackle certain fears."
Luuk eventually stumbles upon a report written by an ex-patient who recovered completely from HPPD after three months. In the report, he describes what he has done to get better, and Luuk decides to strictly follow his steps and not give up this time. He stops smoking and drinking, works out at least four times a week, and only eats natural products. "I didn't notice any changes at first, but if I compare my current situation to that of two months ago, there's definitely a big difference. Especially when it comes to my state of mind and how I feel." His decision to start seeing HPPD as a temporary affliction he has to deal with, has given him a much more positive outlook on life. For now, he isn't cured yet, but his situation is gradually improving and he's sticking to his healthier lifestyle. "I'm not there yet, but I'm driven and determined to fully recover."